COLUMBIA — Kristal Toney of Columbia loves her dog, Frisky, but the family pet arrived with baggage.
Frisky is a pit bull.
So, despite her claims that Frisky is quite friendly, Toney has had trouble finding a place to live. She comes up against clauses in housing contracts that restrict certain so-called bully breeds.
"People don't offer to meet the dog before saying she's not allowed," she said. "They just stereotype it."
Pit bulls are among the bully breeds that have a reputation of being particularly aggressive and likely to bite.
Bully breeds usually include American pit bull terriers, bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, select mastiff breeds and mixes of these animals. Sometimes, Rottweilers, German shepherds, Akitas and Doberman pinschers are also included.
While these dogs might have sweet temperaments, the assumption of aggression can make it difficult to earn public acceptance. Owning one of the breeds can prove challenging for owners looking to rent an apartment or secure homeowners insurance.
Dog bites injure thousands
Typically, justification for any restrictions centers on the increased liability for dog bites and other dog-related injuries.
Dogs bite 4.7 million people a year, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The center noted there is no reliable way to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.
It was reported in 2009 that 337,526 people in the U.S. were injured by dog bites, up slightly from 333,235 the previous year.
The center did analyze 24 years of human dog-bite-related fatalities and reported in 2000 that at least 25 breeds were involved in 238 fatalities.
More than half of the human dog-bite-related fatalities were attributed to pit bulls, Rottweilers and their mixes. In the final two years of the study — 1997 and 1998 — the same group accounted for 67 percent of the deaths.
"It is extremely unlikely that they (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers) accounted for anywhere near 60 percent of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities," the report concluded.
Pit bulls are a type of dog, not a breed, said Hank Greenwood, president of the American Dog Breeders Association, an organization based in Salt Lake City that advocates for acceptance and responsible ownership of pit bull terriers.
Pit bulls cover up to 20 breeds and any number of mixes, including American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American pit bull terriers, Greenwood said.
A number of cities pass breed-specific bans
Reports of pit bull attacks — including attacks in Missouri — have prompted a number of communities to enact breed-specific legislation. Eight municipalities in Missouri have banned or restricted specific breeds or types of dogs, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University.
Columbia does not have a breed-specific ordinance, though it does impose regulations on vicious animals, described as ones prone to bite, snarl, growl, snap or generate fear in reasonable people.
According to Gerald Worley, environmental health manager of Columbia-Boone County Health Department, the regulations are targeted toward behavior, not breed.
An individual dog can be classified as vicious or as a nuisance, but breeds are not prohibited or restricted. Owners can affect the temperament and disposition of their animals, Worley said.
Liability concerns prompt restrictions
The reputation of these dogs as being vicious or more likely to bite a human increases the perception of risk for liability, however, and some landlords and property owners have responded with breed restrictions.
Callahan & Galloway Property Management Professionals, a company that manages residential and commercial properties around Columbia, used to allow bully breeds and mixes, but changed its policy about seven years ago because of pressure from individual property owners.
Many owners of rental properties managed by the company have homeowners policies that don't allow bully breeds, according to Joe Callahan, a co-owner.
Callahan said he believes some pit bull issues result from poor training by their owners, but he can describe a run-in with a dog himself.
"It's too bad that this has happened to the breeds," he said. "But as a victim on a rental property, I concur."
A tenant had reportedly moved out, but in checking the property, Callahan discovered a pit bull still in the building. He said he ran from the dog and made it to a fence, but it bit him severely on the calf.
"I think about what could have happened had it been someone else," he said. "My job is to protect the owner, nearby residents and maintenance staff."
Insurance coverage may depend on breed
Insurance companies are also cautious about pit bulls and other dogs such as Doberman pinschers, German shepherds and Akitas.
While some will cover certain types of dogs under liability if they are properly trained and restrained, others restrict coverage or charge more for certain breeds, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute's stated mission is to improve public understanding of insurance.
Eric Ward, who lived in Columbia until a few months ago, said that because of his pit bull, Bowser, he has been unable to obtain liability insurance.
Toney said her mother, Shirley, who lives in Arkansas, has had problems finding home insurance because of her pit bull, Oreo. Several companies dropped her home insurance after finding out she had a pit bull, Toney said.
Dog bites account for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, costing $413 million in 2010, the institute reported.
"Some companies will not insure pit bulls because they consider them aggressive," State Farm spokesman Jim Camoriano said. State Farm does not deny insurance to Missouri dog owners based on breed.
"We don't look at a breed and say that all are vicious," Camoriano said.
Missouri ranks No. 19 in dog-bite claims
State Farm had nearly 3,500 dog-bite claims nationally in 2010 and paid more than $90 million. In a May 2011 press release, State Farm ranked Missouri at No. 19 in the country for dog-bite claims in 2010, paying $608,000 for 61 claims.
Once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk, according to the Insurance Information Institute's website.
In that instance, the insurance company might suggest the homeowner find the dog a new home, or decide to charge a higher premium, to not renew the homeowner's insurance policy or to exclude the dog from coverage.
According to the institute, most liability policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 of coverage for dog bites.
"Many insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses," the Insurance Information Institute's website states. "Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while others charge more for owners of biting breeds such as pit bulls and Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all."
If an owner acquires a pet deemed ineligible, an insurance company can cancel the current policy, said Connie McClellan, producer at Winter-Dent & Co., an insurance company with offices in Columbia and Jefferson City. She said this policy is fairly standard in the insurance industry.
Ineligible breeds at Winter-Dent & Co. include pit bulls, Rottweilers, some German shepherds, chows, mastiff mixes and Doberman pinschers, McClellan said. The company might give the owner the opportunity to get rid of the dog or face cancellation.
"It is really important for people with these breeds to declare them to their insurance company, because the company can decline coverage," McClellan said.
Not all breeds allowed in Stephens College dorms
Stephens College allows dogs in certain residence halls but rejects certain breeds — pit bulls, Rottweilers, chows and Akitas — because of insurance reasons.
"We're not saying a pit bull is a bad dog; it's how it has been trained," said Deb Duran, vice president of student services. "Any breed can be vicious depending on the training. But some have higher risk."
Toney has three children and considers them safe around Frisky.
"She has never bitten them or their friends," Toney said. "She's very playful."
The Central Missouri Humane Society has a program called Bull Runs that tries to secure adoptions for bully breeds. Part of its job is to reverse the stigma on these dogs, or at least put it in perspective.
"If you look into the history of the American pit bull terrier, they were actually known as the 'nanny dog' around the turn of the century," said Katie Steckel, Bull Runs coordinator. "They're amazing dogs."
Dog fighting influences perception
Steckel said she believes dog fighting downgraded perceptions of the breed in recent times. When dog fighting was considered more acceptable, she said, inherent aggression was not the ideal characteristic in fighters. Instead, the most desirable trait was an animal's willingness to fight other dogs, but not harm humans.
Since dog fighting has gone underground, it has been transformed into breeding and making the dog aggressive in the way they're treated, Steckel said.
Greenwood maintained that pit bull activity has been sensationalized, which has led to discrimination. In earlier decades, other dog breeds were considered to be more aggressive and scary, he said.
If a pit bull mix attacks someone, the breed makes headlines, Greenwood said. But if it's a Labrador mix, it's called a dog attack — if it's reported at all.
"It is a dog that you have to be careful with," Steckel said. "Because if it was doing any behavior that any other normal dog would do, a lot of times it's sort of exaggerated in peoples' views, just because it's a pit bull that is doing it and not a lab."